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Pregame Six Pack: Primetime at Purdue

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Four down, eight to go.

After digging themselves into an improbable 0-2 hole, the Irish are ready to push their way above .500, a long slog back after two really disheartening losses. They’ll have their chance to do it in primetime Saturday night, with the Irish and Boilermakers kicking off at Rose-Ade Stadium at 8:00 p.m. ET. (You can join me, as always, for a very spirited live-blog.)

With losses on consecutive Saturdays to open the season, the Irish faced traditional opponents Michigan State and Pittsburgh, two teams that Notre Dame has struggled with in recent years. That the Irish dispatched the Spartans handily and escaped Pittsburgh with a win was everything the Irish needed to do to get their season back on pace. Yet as only Irish fans can do, a very vocal contingent has turned more negative about the season than they were after dropping the first two games of the year.

After two weeks of offensive regression, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have a chance to go put together a solid performance. They’ll need to do it in front of 60,000 fans and a primetime ESPN audience. Entering the second act of the season, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftover and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Purdue at 8:00 p.m. ET.

1. Offenses beware: Running against the Irish is no easy feat.

In retrospect, the Irish’s performance against Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham already looks much better than it did last Saturday. The Irish defense held Graham to 89 yards on 21 carries, letting Graham loose for a 42-yard scamper, his longest play from scrimmage on the year. Even with that run, Notre Dame held Graham to his lowest output on the season, just days before he was unleashed against South Florida on Thursday night, running for 226 yards on 26 carries.

After four games, the Irish shutting down impressive running games is starting to become a trend.

Thanks to the Irish Sports Information Department, here are the Irish four previous opponents, how they’ve run the ball against the Irish, and how they’ve done against everybody else:

USF                                              Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               126.0                                                       262.7
Average Per Rush                      3.0                                                           6.1

Michigan                                     Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               114.0                                                       348.0
Average Per Rush                      4.4                                                           7.3

Michigan State                           Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               29.0                                                        181.3
Average Per Rush                      1.3                                                           4.1

Pittsburgh                                    Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               103.0                                                       192.6
Average Per Rush                      2.7                                                           4.4

Purdue head coach Danny Hope understands the Irish will be the best challenge his upstart running game will face.

“They’re good against the run. They can shut your run game down,” Hope said of the Irish defense. “Most of their opponents this season have struggled to manufacture any sort of run game. When that happens, you become somewhat one-dimensional and that plays into their hands.”

We’ll see how Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers do against a stingy Irish defense. It’ll likely tell the story of the Boilermakers offense.

2. Brian Kelly has made it clear just how important this game is… to Purdue.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly isn’t a guy that puts his foot in his mouth too often. But there’s one thing he’s done consistently this week that’s been a bit of a head scratcher: He’s continued to call this weekend’s game Purdue’s Super Bowl.

“This is their Super Bowl. This is the biggest game on their schedule by far,” Kelly said earlier in the week, and continues to echo this line of thought. “There’s no question about it. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

It’s true that the Notre Dame is usually one of Purdue’s most important games on the season, but something about an opponent’s coach naming  your team’s Super Bowl strikes me as a little strange. But backing up the truck, maybe it’s a case of Kelly playing some motivational games with his own team.

If there’s a common theme Kelly is hitting on with his team, it’s that Purdue is a team that’s going to be on a mission. They’re hosting a large recruiting weekend, turning Saturday into a Gold & Black game, and are on the verge of pulling off a sell out crowd. Combine all of that, and there’s little doubt that Danny Hope’s squad comes ready to play.

(That said, if Kelly’s just taking a dig at Jim Delany‘s B1G conference and its merry band of cupcakes on the schedule, I’d probably get a chuckle out of that, too.)

Realistically, we’ve got no clue what kind of team we’ll be seeing on Saturday night. They snuck by one directional state school and thumped another one, and sandwiched those games between losing to one of the worst teams in D-I football. Then again Pitt gave up seven sacks to Maine and only beat the Black Bears by six before absolutely killing USF Thursday night.

The message? Frankly, I have no idea.

3. Purdue is confident sophomore Ricardo Allen might have some answers for Michael Floyd.

If Purdue was looking for the blueprint to slow down Michael Floyd, they may have gotten a peak last weekend against Pitt. But Purdue also has a weapon of its own, sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen, who walked onto campus last year for Hope and became one of the team’s best defenders. Good news for Boilermaker fans? He’s still getting better and better.

“I think Ricardo has really progressed from this point in time last year,” Hope said. “It’s hard to tell because a lot of people are not throwing his way and running the ball. Maybe just the stats and his numbers don’t jump out at you quite like they did this time last year. I think he’s really improved from where he was at this time last year as far as we can tell because he has not been tested. Saturday, he’ll be matched up on one of them.”

That “one of them” is Michael Floyd. How the Boilermakers decide to help Floyd should determine how big of a difference Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick or TJ Jones make.

“Obviously, if they have two or three guys looking at you all the time, there’s obviously got to be someone open,” Floyd said Wednesday. “We’re trying to get the guy open. I’m trying to do as much as I can to make sure to put [Tommy Rees] in the most comfortable spot as possible.”

Allen will likely stay on the field side of the formation while fellow cornerback Josh Johnson covers the short side. Whether or not the corners switch sides to keep an eye on Floyd, it’s clear Purdue’s secondary knows the Irish receivers present a challenge.

“We feel comfortable with those two guys and we don’t have to run around and match up,” Purdue DB coach Lou Anarumo said. “They have three good receivers. Michael Floyd is a great player but the other three — two wide receivers and the tight end — they’re very good players.

“We’re going to be conscious of where (Floyd) is every snap but we’ll be aware of the other guys that can beat you too.”

If I had to guess, expect to see the Irish try and jump start Riddick with some easy completions.

4. Credit Kelly and company for some nice work with halftime adjustments.

If you were surprised by Pitt scoring on their first possession of the third quarter, it’s because it just hasn’t happened all that much for the Irish. Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com crunched the numbers, just to show how impressive the Irish have been after making their halftime adjustments.

Notre Dame has pitched a shutout in six of the last nine third quarters, surrendering a mere 23 points.

Only Pittsburgh last week has put together a sustained scoring drive in the third quarter against the Irish in their last nine games, and that required a roughing the punter penalty to keep the drive alive.

“That’s what we’re trying to build here,” said Brian Kelly Wednesday when asked about Notre Dame’s recent third-quarter prowess. “We knew that our success was going to be linked toward building a defensive philosophy and a mentality and a way we play.”

Notre Dame’s third-quarter numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Tulsa’s seven third-quarter points last season came on a 59-yard punt return while USC’s 10 third-quarter points came on a field goal that capped a seven-play, 25-yard drive and a four-play, two-yard “touchdown drive’ following a Tommy Rees fumble.

Over the last nine games, Notre Dame has out-scored its opponents in the third quarter, 59-23. Over the last eight games, Notre Dame has a 51-16 advantage.

In five of those nine third quarters, the Irish have surrendered 59 yards or less. Only Michigan has gained more than 100 yards in the third quarter (137), thanks in large part to a 77-yard pass completion (that eventually led to a fourth-quarter score).

Even Pittsburgh didn’t crack the 100-yard mark in the third quarter against the Irish last week, despite a 19-play, 80-yard drive. The Panthers’ other drive in the third quarter netted a minus-eight yards.

There will still be complaints about the Irish’s defensive coaching until Gary Gray starts winning some one-on-one deep balls and Bob Diaco‘s troops slow down Air Force and Navy, two games that should be absolutely intriguing from a Xs and Os point of view.

One thing is certain though, Diaco’s continual preaching of the fundamentals has helped turn this defensive unit into a BCS caliber group.

5. The trip to West Lafayette is a return home for new Irish trainer Rob Hunt.

If you’re looking for one of the most under-reported stories of the offseason, it was Brian Kelly bringing in Oklahoma State trainer Rob Hunt, completing a major overhaul of the medical and training staffs that oversee the football program. Hunt’s work with the Irish has already helped the team, with the Irish staying relatively healthy through four physical games on the schedule.

Hunt’s career has seen him zig-zag from Ball State to Missouri to Southeast Missouri to Oklahoma State. But the chance to return to his home state of Indiana was just too good to pass up.

Sam King in the Lafayette Journal & Courier has more about the West Lafayette native:

A return to Indiana was welcome for Hunt and his wife, Krista, also a 1993 West Lafayette graduate.

After never being closer than six hours from West Lafayette, moving to South Bend has offered plenty of family time in the last six months.

It also gave Hunt the opportunity to work with one of the most storied college football programs.

“Certainly all of us have dreams to be at the pinnacle, at the best of your profession,” Hunt said. “I prided myself on doing a good job no matter where I’ve been. I didn’t know where it would take me.

“The tradition here is unlike any other. It’s difficult to describe. It’s been a great six months for me to this point. We’re looking forward to many years here supporting this football program and coaching staff.”

Kelly, Notre Dame’s second-year head coach, is equally as happy to have Hunt.

Upon hiring Hunt, Kelly was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “We think we got the best in the country.”

Last season, it seemed like just about every non-lineman on the team was battling hamstring problems at one point or another, with the Irish losing a ton of critical minutes with correctable injuries like muscle pulls. Right now, only Danny Spond has missed any time from a hamstring injury, with the only other major injury being fifth-year tight end Mike Ragone’s torn ACL.

Hunt comes from a large family of Purdue graduates and fans, making the weekend back home even more special.

“We’ve watched a bunch of Purdue games in that stadium,” Hunt to the J&C. “It’s going to be a little different standing on that sideline as a member of the opposing team.”

6. It’s time for Tommy Rees to start building some confidence… as three quarterbacks are waiting.

If the Irish are going to get to the places they want to this season, they’ll need Tommy Rees to start developing some confidence. While Kelly has done his best to shield his young quarterback, the sophomore knows he’s got to play better.

“I think the whole being a sophomore thing isn’t really that relevant anymore,” Rees said. “I need to improve how I’m playing and keep getting better. It can’t be a matter of age or experience. I think I can be the quarterback for this football team and I think I need to be learning by my mistakes and playing up to my capabilities.”

There has been enough debate this week about Irish quarterbacks to last an entire offseason. But if Rees is going to continue to pilot this offense, he’ll need to take big strides against Purdue and Air Force, two defenses that shouldn’t stack up all that well against the Irish’s explosive and balanced attack.

Kelly has made it clear that he’s still supporting Rees as his starting quarterback, but you’ve got to think the head coach would also love winning one of the next two games comfortably so he’s able to give Dayne Crist another chance to play, only this time in a low-leverage situation.

Kelly talked about keeping all four of his quarterbacks ready to go, even when it’s been Rees that’s taken every snap since halftime against South Florida.

“First of all the quarterback situation is such that the No. 2 knows he has to be ready,” Kelly said after Thursday’s practice. “So he’s doing his work because he knows he’s one snap away from being in there, so you never worry about two in that sense.

“I try to spend more attention and time with three and four. That’s why we’ve had them both stay with us and be part of meetings and game planning as well as go over there and get some work. I’ve tried to spend a lot of time with the threes and fours in keeping them engaged and learning our offense. I meet with them individually as well to just make sure that they’ve got a good base.”

That Kelly himself spends time with the third and fourth sting quarterback is just an amazing contrast from what Charlie Weis used to do with his quarterbacks. But it also helps explain why he’s kept so much harmony in a really difficult quarterbacking situation, where a roster imbalance meant bringing in multiple kids bunched together, something that makes depth chart continuity tough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”